Liz Lempert is the first mayor of the consolidated Princeton following the merger of the former Borough and Township in 2012. She was re-elected to a second term in 2016. Under Lempert’s administration, Princeton has been recognized for its leadership in governmental innovation, bicycle mobility, environmental sustainability, and community inclusiveness by organizations such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities, the League of American Bicyclists, Sustainable Jersey, and Welcoming America. Princeton’s Nassau Street was selected as the “People’s Choice” Great Place Designation by the American Planning Association in 2016; Princeton was named a Champion City in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 national Mayors Challenge for its efforts to recycle food waste; and Princeton often tops national surveys of best small cities and towns for its quality of life and unique sense of place.
Lempert served for four years on the former Princeton Township Committee beginning in December 2008. In addition to her work on Township Committee, she has been an active volunteer in the community. Lempert served on the Executive Board of U-NOW, the PTO Council of Littlebrook Elementary School, and the board of the Friends of the Princeton Public Library. She fought for consolidation as part of the Unite Princeton campaign and helped to co-found the public school advocacy group, Save Our Schools NJ.
Lempert is a graduate of Stanford University. She worked as a writer, producer, and editor for the National Public Radio program "Living On Earth" for a decade before taking time off to raise her two daughters. Her oldest daughter is a senior at college, and her youngest is a 12th grader at Princeton High School. Lempert first became involved in local politics in 2007 as co-chair of the Mercer4Obama campaign where she grew the organization from a dozen volunteers to over 3000 members.
She is married to Ken Norman, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University.
Q&A with Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert
By Mercerspace on October 2, 2015
In its obituary for Barbara Boggs Sigmund, the celebrated Princeton mayor who died of cancer in 1990, the New York Times wrote: “She loved to point out that Princeton’s image as a wealthy town was misleading. ‘It has been a town of mixed-income groups and races for centuries,’ she said.
“Once,” the Times continued, “she complained wryly that most of the town’s newer residents were executives in the high-tech industries that were moving to Princeton and surrounding areas. ‘We want a certain amount,’ she said, ‘but not so much as to destroy the town.’”
Twenty-five years later, many Princetonians remember Sigmund fondly, and they probably remember those quotes as well. They might also note that Sigmund’s observations can be said to still apply to Princeton today.
But now they are a matter for another woman: Liz Lempert. Since entering politics somewhat peripherally in 2007, as a campaign organizer for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, she has quickly risen through the ranks. In 2008, she was appointed to replace Phyllis Marchand—who served 22 years, 13 as mayor—on the township committee, subsequently winning re-election. In 2012, after defeating Republican Dick Woodbridge in the mayoral election, she became the ninth female mayor in the history of Princeton, and the only mayor that united Princeton has ever known.
Lempert grew up in San Mateo, California, daughter of Sue, who worked in the public sector, and Art, a lawyer. She graduated from Stanford University in 1990, and later got a master’s in journalism from Boston University. Her brother, Ted, is president of Children Now, an organization that advocates for the well being of children.
Her parents, both retired, still live in San Mateo. Sue has a weekly column in the The Daily Journal of San Mateo. Lempert is married to Ken Norman, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who studies memory. They have two daughters, both of whom attend Princeton public schools.
Lempert says that she never intended to go into politics, and indeed for more than a decade, she worked as a reporter and producer for the radio program, Living on Earth. But Steve Curwood, the show’s founder and host, isn’t surprised to see her become a public figure.
“Of course Liz would become mayor of any community where she felt deeply connected, since she knows the power of effective community organizing and governance,” Curwood said. “Liz is a natural leader. She was always well organized, thoughtful and incisive when it came to deciding about stories to follow, but unlike some highly focused people, she also is an excellent listener. We were really sad when she had to leave to raise her family and follow her husband from Harvard to Princeton.”
The Princeton Echo sat down with the mayor in her office at 400 Witherspoon St. last month for a 90-minute interview. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Princeton Echo: Your mother was mayor of San Mateo on several occasions in the ’90’s and 2000’s.
Liz Lempert: My mom was always very politically engaged. She was president of the local League of Women Voters when she was pregnant with me. When I was growing up, she was on the school board. She would take me to a lot of meetings. I helped out on a lot of campaigns.
My older brother served in the California State Assembly, but I never saw myself as being a candidate. I always thought of myself as more of a writer.
PE: What’s it like to go back to San Mateo today?
LL: San Mateo was one of the towns along the Southern Pacific Railroad, so downtown was built and grew up around the train station. My dad and lots of my friends’ dads would take the train to San Francisco for work. It was pretty dead. My friends and I would usually go to San Francisco or Berkeley for fun.
Now it’s totally transformed because it’s part of Silicon Valley. It’s a lot more expensive. The downtown is very busy, with lots of great ethnic restaurants. It’s fun to go back and visit my parents, but also strange to go back to a place you knew so well and see the changes there.
PE: What made you decide to major in symbolic systems (along with history)?
LL: I had taken some computer science classes which I loved, so I decided to do the double in symbolic systems. In a lot of other places it was called cognitive science. It was a combination of computer science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of math, linguistics, psychology. It was an exciting time to be studying in those areas. That was just at the cusp of when things were about to explode there. Reid Hoffman, who was a class or two above me, founded LinkedIn.
PE: How did your professional career get off the ground?
LL: I was very interested in science writing. I thought it would be good to work for a while first before writing about it, so I got a job working for Cyc, an artificial intelligence project that’s still going. The goal was to imbue computers with common sense. I worked for a couple years in Palo Alto, then moved to Boston with my boyfriend at the time, now my husband. I continued working with the Cyc consortium in Boston, then went to journalism school at BU and got the job with Living on Earth. This was ’96 or so.
It was a relatively small staff, so I ended up doing almost every job that was there—reporter, producer. When we moved to Boulder for 3 years, I was the western editor the whole time.
I know when Steve Curwood first started it, people questioned whether he could make the environmental concept last. But environmental issues encompass so many different aspects of the economy and politics and how we live. There was never a want for content.
PE: Did the show affect your approach to the environment, or did you work on the show because you already had an affinity for those topics?
LL: I’ve always been somebody who enjoys spending time outdoors and understanding the importance of land conservation. While I was there, I became much better informed about issues of pollution. The discussion of climate change really started to intensify when I was there.
PE: You moved from Boulder to Princeton in 2002. What did you know about town before coming here?
LL: My brother was an alum, so I had come to his graduation, and we had some friends who had grown up here. I knew the schools were fantastic and it was beautiful and also very different from Boulder.
PE: You’ve lived much of your life in college towns.
LL: And each of them is really different, although there’s certainly a common thread among them. The municipality gets a weekly email from the International Town & Gown Association. That’s where you can read articles about what’s happening in other communities. A lot of issues are very similar, especially around issues of growth and the recognition that when you’re in a college town, the town benefits tremendously from the academic and cultural and intellectual resources of the community, but there can be tensions around the edges when the goals of the town and the institution are not a hundred percent aligned.
PE: How did you become co-chair for Mercer 4 Obama?
LL: I had taken some time off—I had two kids and I wanted to be focused on them. When the younger one was starting kindergarten, I was looking for something I could do that would be a way to give back. I had just read Obama’s book, Dreams of My Father, and knew I was supporting him. In summer 2007, I signed up to go to a “Camp Obama” the campaign was having to train community organizers.
They wanted me to chair the Mercer County group and I said, “OK, but I don’t really know what I’m doing.” But at some point I realized that a lot of the stuff that we were doing was like what was happening around the kitchen table when I was growing up. Campaigns are really the same everywhere.
The primary was a fantastic experience, then the general election was also a really great experience. I worked closely with Jenny Crumiller to open an office on Nassau Street. We thought New Jersey was pretty much decided, so we worked on other states. During that election that meant calling places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Nevada.
That plugged me in more to the political scene in Princeton too. We talked about consolidation while we were in the campaign office. It was an issue I cared a lot about. Right after that campaign, I was recruited for an empty seat—Mayor Marchand had stepped down.
PE: Looking back, how do you think consolidation has gone? What went well, what could have gone better?
LL: I think it went relatively seamlessly from most residents’ perspectives. We’re saving money, we’re more efficient, we’re better able to communicate. The police department is able to protect public safety better with a single administrative level.
I think the most difficult parts have been some of the personnel issues and the more general concept of fairness. When we’re going through ordinance harmonization—harmonizing two laws that used to be different and now are the same—we might make a decision that would be to the advantage of one person and not another. Is it more fair to treat people exactly the same? Or treat them as they have been treated in the past?
We’re still working on ordinance harmonization. Jo Butler, Jenny Crumiller, Bernie Miller have been working hard—but it’s a lot of material. When it comes to issues like parking, it can be a challenge, especially with regard to fairness.
PE: You talked about what it’s like to see how San Mateo has changed. A lot of people are concerned about the ways that Princeton is changing.
LL: We’ve been hearing it from almost every neighborhood in town. One of the most important things is working to preserve the character of our neighborhoods. I think we need to be creative about how we can use ordinances to do that. We passed an hours-of-operation ordinance that doesn’t impact any current business, but which limits 24/7 establishments right next to somebody who has a home in a residential zone. We’re looking at meeting about historic designation in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. That’s a tool that may or may not be appropriate. We’ve talked about strengthening the shade tree ordinance.
In an ideal world, any restrictions placed on what people can do on a certain property would come from an agreement among neighbors. I think everybody on council is sensitive to the impact any changes we make might have on property values, in both directions. We’re going to be looking at harmonizing zoning and land-use ordinances.
One thing I would like to see us explore further is a form-based code, a different type of zoning that might require, for example, porches or a certain kind of roof, or might require buildings to fit within certain envelope size. That way, even if there is a teardown, what gets built in its place would fit better within the character of a given neighborhood. That’s a tool that seems worth exploring.
PE: You’ve been vocal in your support of Princeton’s immigrant community, supporting a hands-off approach for the police in terms of residency status for Princeton residents.
LL: For me, it’s important that we’re the kind of place where every resident feels they belong. I don’t think our policy is particularly radical. It’s very common sense. Our police’s primary responsiblity is for public safety. To do that, they need to be the kind of department where victims of crime feel comfortable coming forward, where witnesses feel comfortable sharing information with police.
PE: A lot of people are interested to find out what will happen with the citizens’ lawsuit challenging the university’s tax-exempt status. Has the town changed its stance on the lawsuit?
LL: We’re watching it like everybody else. We’re technically a defendant, but I think we see ourselves as more of an observer in the case. I can’t speculate beyond that.
PE: What are your aspirations? Do you see yourself moving up the political ladder?
LL: Being mayor is a really great job. This is a phenomenal community. I like that I get a chance to work with residents, that constituents feel like they can call and email or drop by when I have my hours at the library. We can see the impact of what we do. You’ve got to pick up the garbage and maintain the parks and any time I go to the grocery store I’m going to see people. You’ve got to make things work.
PE: So does that mean you plan to stick to local politics?
LL: One of the strategies the White House uses when it is not able to enact change through Congress is doing a lot of work with municipalities, so things can get done town by town. A lot of policy initiatives that under normal circumstances we’d think of happening at the state or federal level, those decisions are being made at the town level or city level. It’s great to be in a progressive place like Princeton, where people want to be innovative yet at same time we’re of a small enough size really see the impact of changes that we make.